In her final moments of existence, just milliseconds before “Biographies, N-S” snuffs out her life forever, Librarian Boughton manages one final cry.
Her two assistants, slogging through the daily shelving over in Fiction, look at each other.
“Did you hear something?” asks Matt.
Emma glances over her shoulder toward “Biographies”.
“I don’t think so. It was probably just the construction.”
Matt slides two books into their proper spaces before saying, “Should we go see? Just to make sure?”
“She doesn’t like anyone in Biographies. You know she’s got a thing about curating that herself.”
Matt puts another book on the shelf.
“Even so, I think we better see. I thought I heard a scream.”
“Ummm...yeah, ok. But let’s finish this cart first. I don’t want to stay late again tomorrow. You know she’ll make us if we fall behind.”
Ten minutes later, they are standing over Librarian Boughton’s body. Spindly legs and clunky shoes stick out from a mountain of books and shelves, reminding Emma of the Wicked Witch of the West after being smashed by the house. She glances at Matt who is staring at the scene with cheeks reddening in a way that tells Emma he is thinking the same thing and trying hard to keep a solemn face.
He nudges the librarian’s foot with his and they both hold their breaths, awaiting a groan or a stir which never comes.
“Do you think she’s…..gone?” Matt whispers.
Emma dials 9-1-1 and shrugs.
“I don’t know. But I don’t think we have to worry about finishing the shelving today.”
Librarian Boughton is indeed gone, as Matt has put it and it isn’t long before news vans and reporters pull into the library’s parking lot.
“They called her The Little Librarian Who Could,” says one reporter, speaking into her microphone. “Thirty years ago, she appeared in Ecklesville - like magic, local residents say. No one knew where she came from or even her first name. She marched into the Ecklesville Public Library, which was on the verge of closing and turned it around.”
“Like magic? Who says that?” Emma whispers as she and Matt watch the reporter amid a crowd of onlookers.
“Boughton gained national fame in 2004 when the Guinness Book of World Records named her the world’s only librarian who had never had an overdue book. The New York Times profiled her in their Disappearing Libraries series in 2004,” the reporter continues, holding up a copy of the paper to the camera. “Following the report, she developed a cult-like following. Her image appeared in libraries across the country and she became known for her cat-eye, rhinestone-tipped glasses. She even got her own action figure.” She reads from the old New York Times article “ ‘Overdue? Not on her watch,’ ‘Never late,’ ‘Ecklesville is a small town that always turns in their books in on time.’” she reads. She turns to a short, portly man standing next to her. “We are joined by Ecklesville Mayor, Lawrence Mudge. Mayor, what is the legacy Librarian Boughton has left for Ecklesville?”
Beads of sweat stand out on the mayor’s bald head as he clears his throat and glances over his shoulder at the library.
“Yes, Librarian Boughton. Yes, yes. This town will miss her terribly.” He coughs and his ears turn red. “She left us a gem of a library, yes, she sure did. She raised so much money for the library and was able to bring the latest books and the newest technology. Never a book out of place. No wait lists. Clean and cheerful.”
He speaks quickly and sweat drips down his face, which is turning redder by the minute.
“What’s wrong with him?” Matt whispers.
“He’s lying through his teeth,” Emma hisses. “He knows we all hated her.”
Mayor Mudge shifts and looks over his shoulder again, eyes darting.
“Is everything ok, Mayor?” The reporter asks.
“Ok? Um yes, yes. I just can’t believe that she’s gone.”
“And the Guinness Record. Librarian Boughton had a perfect record of returns. She never had an overdue book. How is that possible?.”
The mayor’s face turns doughy as he breathes heavily.
“We are a dutiful town that understands the value of turning books in on time.”
The reporter turns back to the camera.
“The investigation is underway but police say early signs indicate an accidental death. The funeral will be held on Wednesday. A sorrowful farewell for a town's beloved librarian.”
The town residents watch the reporter speak with stiff smiles pasted upon their faces. As Emma had correctly said, the mayor has not told the entire truth about the town’s love for Librarian Boughton and her perfect record.
He has failed to tell the reporters of the phone calls 24 hours before the due dates. The reedy voice reminding the library patron not to be late. And if you fail to answer? Avoiding the phone does not work because Librarian Boughton will track you down - at the supermarket, on your children’s playground, or even in church and demand you return the book on time….or else. Or else what? Everyone has secrets they keep buried. Some age-old, some from yesterday. But whatever the secret, Librarian Boughton knows. How she knows is a mystery, perhaps some untold ancient mastery passed from one omnipotent librarian to the next. But the how of it does not matter as much as the what to the library patrons of Ecklesville. An overdue book will result in the public release of your most damaging secret. And so, men and women throughout Ecklesville circle dates on their calendars and set alarms on their phones. They assign a designated spot in the home for all library books and refuse to entrust small children with them. Some even lock them in their wall safes. Anxiety levels rise as the due date approaches and these days, most people make sure to return their books before they receive Librarian Boughton’s call.
You would think that any rational adult would simply stop going to the library and turn to Amazon. But a certain amount of fame has come to that little brick building and, with that fame, a large amount of money. All over the country, Americans find themselves wanting to be a part of this perfect return record and the story of the diminutive steely-lipped librarian with rhinestone-studded glasses. Donations have poured in over the years and continue. As a result, the library is wealthy and has become an oasis this small, middle-of-the road town. It boasts a bright and cozy children’s section, the newest books in the best condition, no wait lists, new technology, a cheery and peaceful place for study and overstuffed chairs where you can curl up and wile away the afternoon reading. The only price to pay is returning your book on time.
That is where Mayor Mudge’s dilemma begins. As a politician, he has many secrets. So many off-the-book, clandestine deals that he isn’t even sure where the line between truth and lie is anymore. He has sworn that Librarian Boughton will never get near his skeletons. Many years ago, it was only a lucky break that shifted him out of construction drudgery and into the political spotlight and he is determined to never go back. And so he resolves to never borrow from the library.
But books have a way of enchanting us and when Mayor Mudge speaks to a class of schoolchildren at the library one day, he can’t take his eyes off a new coffee table book on display: “Great Pastas of Italy.” It has a glossy cover and thick pages filled with photos, stories and recipes of puttanescas and primaveras, tortellinis and raviolis. His stomach rumbles and he runs his hand over the book. It will be fine, he tells himself. He will look at it one night and one night only. He will return it long before its due date.
We all know how these good intentions are short-lived, especially for a politician. Mayor Mudge falls asleep with the book on his bed. When he turns over, it tumbles to the floor. The next day, his cleaning woman sees the book, tossed askew among the Mayor’s pajamas, socks and underwear. Assuming he won’t miss it, she borrows it for her son who is studying Italian culture in his history class. Meanwhile, one thing piles on top of another for Mayor Mudge and he forgets about the book until his phone rings and Librarian Boughton’s thin voice says, “Mayor, you have a book due in 24 hours. I advise you to return it in time.”
A mad scramble through his house, his office and his car turns up nothing. And that is why, in the wee hours of the morning before Librarian Boughton’s evening demise, we see a rotund figure unlocking the back door of the library and sneaking in. He skulks between the stacks and turns his flashlight onto the brackets and bolts holding “Biographies, N-S” in place. He knows, as Emma has pointed out, that Librarian Boughton is possessive of her Biography section and will allow no one else near it as she plumps it up with new volumes. With a few expert turns of the socket, he loosens the bolts on the shelves. He gently pushes them. Satisfied that they will give way with just the right amount of pressure, he steals out of the library.
Two weeks after Librarian Boughton’s expiration, Mayor Mudge is sleeping well. She is safely interred in Celestial Gardens Cemetery, her death has been declared an accident, Emma is running the Ecklesville Library and the residents are happily paying fines for all their overdue books. Out of the blue, “Great Pastas of Italy” appears on his bookshelf two weeks past its due date and he returns it with a light heart and $4.20 fine.
But that night, as he is snoring and dreaming of mounds of fettuccine alfredo, a wind blows through his room and his eyes snap open. A damp cold fills the house and he rises, shivering to check the closed window. A whine pierces the air and something flies through the room, hitting the wall with a thud. It’s “Great Pastas of Italy.”
“Overdue!” shrieks Librarian Boughton. He covers his ears, paralyzed as lamps fall over and mirrors shatter. “Overdue! Overdue! Overduuueeeeee!!!!!” Her voice is no longer reedy. It is powerful and shrill. As quickly as she comes, she’s gone. Mayor Mudge does not sleep again that night.
In the morning, the papers blast four-inch headlines in print and on the website reading “Mudge murders beloved librarian”. Below, each one of Mayor Mudge’s past sins and secrets are detailed in long, winding articles. In the lower right hand corner, in a tiny box is another story: “Mudge breaks librarian’s perfect return record.” When questioned later, the newspaper’s publisher says that’s not how the paper went to press and they don’t know what happened.
But you know. And so I warn you, fellow library patrons - return your books on time. Librarian Boughton is out there somewhere, no longer hemmed in by the physical limitations of this world. She is in the universe now, watching and waiting for overdue books, gathering your secrets and preparing her revenge. Beware.